Jesus is the Prize
Words by Gretchen Saffles
The blow of the horn pierced the air and adrenaline coursed through my veins like a lightning bolt. Can I do this? Am I cut out for this? The months of grueling training prior to the race were about to be tested. Runners flew by me and it took every ounce of energy within my body to keep up. One step at a time, I reminded myself as the first and second mile passed quickly. Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat. Thirteen seems like such a small number, but each mile is made up of thousands of steps. I’d never run a race before, and my thoughts cried out that I am not a runner. In the midst of the battle, there was a yearning to rise above the challenge and finish the race. However, at miles six and seven, my body let up. All the training slipped through my fingers as my body grew weary; my feet became calloused with each pounding step, and my spirit faint. And I was only halfway there.
The race of life proves unpredictable with the dawn of each day. We run in circles chasing dreams and accolades that leave us breathless and craving more. The rewards of this world were never meant to satisfy our souls and aren’t sufficient to keep us in the race. In the end, they are dead weight that keeps us from running the ultimate race that was marked out for us by Jesus Christ. I once had a wall of trophies in my room that represented my academic and sports achievements. These plastic trophies, once a part of my identity, now sit in a box collecting dust in the closet of my childhood bedroom. Plastic trophies are not satisfactory end goals in the race we are running. The Apostle Paul knew this all too well.
In a dark jail cell, around 62 A.D., Paul penned the letter of Philippians to the church in Philippi. Though his hands were chained, his message was not confined to the walls of the prison. The good news of Jesus Christ cannot be bound by walls, chains, or persecution. A deep urgency in Paul’s bones compelled him to share this Gospel, even from a prison cell. Prior to being a follower of Jesus, Paul took pride in the “plastic trophies” he had to his name. In Philippians 3:5–6, Paul provides a long list of reasons why he could boast in his flesh; “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” That’s quite a record. Paul was highly revered in society and worthy of respect. Now this same man had been radically saved by the grace of God and loved the church he had once vehemently persecuted.
Jesus saved Paul from running the wrong race. His response to his “trophies” that summed up his worldly successes is proof.
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:7–8).
Paul considered it all worthless. Every accomplishment and title was rubbish compared to knowing Christ. In Greek, the word for rubbish refers to dung, filth, or trash. Isaiah 64:6 tells us that “we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. . . .” No achievement, birthright, or success on this earth will ever earn favor with God. Trying to earn our salvation is like wearing a filthy garment or holding up trash to the Lord to show him our earnings. They mean nothing. The trophies that have your name on them, the accomplishments that make up your resume, add up to nothing when compared to the incomparable Christ. Christ is the greatest gain in this world. He is the prize that we are to run after, not plastic trophies that will collect dust. We need to take a step back and test which race we are running in this life.
In life’s daily race, we either chase after unattainable perfection and fleeting happiness, or we run hard to grab hold of what lasts forever in eternity—joyful fellowship with Jesus Christ.
As in any race, our bodies grow weary and our vision dim as the race progresses and challenges increase. In 1 Timothy, Paul wrote another letter while awaiting execution for following Christ. Knowing what he was about to face, he said with confidence, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (4:7). Paul fought with his life. He ran with a purpose. And he finished well. An eternal prize compelled Paul to say such words as he awaited his impending death. Jesus is the prize Paul ran after. Running the Christian race is like swimming upstream against the current. You will look different, you will encounter suffering, and you will need help, but you will reach the goal by the grace of God. As believers, the way we live and the race we run is contrary to this world.
In Philippians 3:9–11, Paul explains that he counts everything as loss in order that he may “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” In order to know Christ intimately, we must suffer with him. In a race made up of thousands of steps, some steps will be easier and others will be grueling and uphill. As Christians, we are not exempt from suffering. Rather, we have a reason to suffer. When the sturdy walls of safety and comfort crumble around us and suffering prevails, we inch closer to the cross. When we share in the sufferings of Christ, becoming like him in death, our fellowship with him deepens. Suffering can be the lens through which we see the glories of Christ more clearly.
Jesus is the prize when the pregnancy test is negative month after month. Jesus is the prize when you receive the devastating news from the doctor. Jesus is the prize when you lose your stability and your savings. Jesus is the prize when you welcome your newborn into the world. Jesus is the prize when you bury your loved one in the grave. Jesus is the prize when your plans fail, your to-do’s are left undone, and your day goes haywire. Jesus is the prize when you marry the one you've waited years for. Jesus is the prize when you cry buckets of tears after years of singleness and waiting. Jesus is the prize in the midst of suffering in this race of life.
I can imagine Paul’s hand shaking with joy and deep urgency as he wrote these words, with shackles on his wrists, knowing full well that Jesus is the prize in every season of life. At that very moment, he was fellowshipping with his Savior, and he longed for the church to know the joy of Christ as well! Paul learned that the secret to contentment is Christ, even in the midst of suffering (Phil. 4:13). He went even further to say, “not only that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12–14). In order to press on, we must first let go. Many of us run the Christian race with a backpack on that is full of comparison, worry, sin, shame, pride, and fear. Our backpacks hinder us from running well. We must let go of our backpacks that weigh us down and run with laser-focused vision on Christ, who has gone before us. In order to run with lightness, we must trade our burdens for the cross that Christ first carried for us.
Jesus is the prize. Not plastic trophies. Not gold medals. Not worldly accolades, followers, or fame. All is loss, including your past and future, when compared to knowing Jesus. When the moments get tough and the race is uphill, set your eyes on Christ who has already run before you. He is the Author and the Finisher of your race. He is running with you and is waiting for you at the end.
At miles ten and eleven, I was done. The race seemed too difficult. My legs were burning and my strength was waning with each step I took. There wasn’t much further to go, but my heart and my head convinced me I couldn’t make it. Feeling defeated, I looked up and heard a fellow runner come alongside of me and challenge me to finish the race strong. In that moment, there was hope. This was the game-changer. I wasn’t running alone. With every last bit of strength I had left, I ran hard and finished the race. Crossing the finish line, I let out a sigh of relief as they placed a medal around my neck. However, the prize was more than a medal. The only way to finish the race is to know the prize you run after. When the prize is priceless, the race is worth it. Jesus is the goal of this race, and he is with you every step, cheering you on.
Jesus is the prize. And he is worth it all.
Content originally published in Deeply Rooted Magazine Issue 7: Legacy.